In August of 2017, hundreds of armed white supremacists descended on Charlottesville, Virginia, calling themselves “protesters.” They were ostensibly there to showcase their deep solidarity with confederate statuary, but in fact they were experimenting with a new kind of political normal. For more than 24 hours, they marched, sometimes by torchlight chanting Nazi slogans, and attacked unarmed locals. Eventually, one of them killed Heather Heyer, and injured 19 others who, like Heyer, were there to counterprotest.
Local police in Charlottesville had ample warning that the mob intended to bring weapons and intended to terrorize and threaten Black and Jewish residents with violence. In online chats available to police, the “protesters” proudly touted that the object of the “rally” was terror, pure and simple. They planned what to wear and how to kill people with cars, and how to claim it was all unplanned. And still, law enforcement found themselves outgunned, outmanned, and wholly unprepared once the violence started. Street fights erupted between white nationalists and counterdemonstrators in full view of officers who stood by and watched.
An exhaustive after-the-fact 207 page study conducted by former U.S. Attorney Tim Heaphy in the months that followed revealed that law enforcement officials in Charlottesville had no coherent plan or program going into Aug. 12. Heaphy concluded that “supervisors devised a poorly conceived plan that under-equipped and misaligned hundreds of officers.” His report—which required about 150 interviews and a review of photos, video, and more than half a million documents—revealed a “lack of coordination between state and city police and a passive response by city officials to the chaos.” As the report concluded: “People were injured in violent confrontations that could have been but were not prevented by police. … Some of the individuals who committed those violent acts escaped detection due to police inability or unwillingness to pursue them.” In one instance, a Charlottesville officer who stepped into a fight simply left a barricade up in his wake, as if a barricade could do the work of an officer. In another, a school resource officer tasked with doing police work was withdrawn for her safety as violence escalated, and simply went unreplaced. The report is worth a read, though it seems nobody bothered to take it too seriously.
On Wednesday afternoon, violent “protesters” descended on the U.S. Capitol to disrupt the vote count that would ratify the 2020 election. Republicans planned to challenge these results because, despite an absence of evidence of fraud, they had committed themselves to the principle that Democrats could not have won absent fraud. So the protesters showed up. Capitol Police had ample access to this mob’s plans online. There had been plenty of careful media reporting on the weekslong plot to bring violent protesters to D.C. Indeed the president had been fomenting it. But again, it appears that nobody did a thing to prepare. Once again, the police seemed wholly unready for the prospect of a violent attack by violent white supremacists, despite the fact that the white supremacists hardly kept their plans secret. Initially it looked as though Capitol Police’s primary response was to put a temporary barricade around the Capitol building, even though we know how that all went in Charlottesville.
Shortly after 1 p.m., the rioters pushed over the barricades, stormed the building, and battered their way into the chambers in which the entire body was debating the final certification of the 2020 election. Members were rushed to safe locations, others ducked under their chairs, some donned gas masks. According to reports, some members and staffers had to figure this out on their own.
Footage revealed that the police found themselves massively outmanned. Many stood down, some stood by, one image captured Capitol Police taking selfies with members of the mob. For good measure, and in another haunting echo of Charlottesville, a Confederate flag was hoisted in the building. For hours we watched as an abject failure of planning, imagination, preparedness, and action played out. Rioters had the run of the place as terrified bystanders ducked for cover. The images of Jan. 6, 2021, trigger shattering memories, not just of Charlottesville, but of a long history of violent white mobs performing the theater of American lawlessness, as law enforcement officers stand around baffled, yet again wondering what happened.
When Heaphy set out to report on the police failures of Charlottesville in 2017, his work was impeded by participants’ efforts to hide texts and witnesses refusals to tell the complete story. You can be sure that will play out in the months ahead, as we attempt to understand how rioters stormed the seat of government, in broad daylight, as the entire body was assembled inside doing the work of democracy. We will learn, one supposes, that Mistakes Were Made. And it will become manifestly clear, yet again, that while peaceful racial justice protesters in Portland, Oregon, or Lafayette Square are readily met with tear gas, guns, rubber bullets, unmarked vehicles, and officers without identifying insignia, an act of full blown insurrection by white supremacists in the halls of the Capitol itself will be recast as a huge surprise for which nobody could have been properly prepared.
The fact that violent white men are allowed to run amok in America with impunity is possibly the least surprising political principle of our time. But by all means, let us continue to act shocked by it, and let us perpetually fail to prepare for their violence, even as they broadcast it to anyone listening for weeks in advance.
There is one other abiding lesson from what happened in Charlottesville in 2017. It is that the absence of consequences acts as a license, always, to push ever further along the continuum of allowable violence. Indeed, the Heaphy report concluded that the failure of the University of Virginia to plan for or respond to a violent torchlight march the night before the rally led to worse excesses the very next day. As Heaphy wrote back in 2017, “The insufficient police response on Friday night emboldened people who intended to engage in similar acts of violence on Saturday.”
When Donald Trump characterized what happened in Charlottesville in 2017 as “very fine people on both sides,” it was abundantly clear what he was signaling to the mob that incited the violence that tragic weekend. The failure of his Justice Department to treat that event as a serious and coordinated hate crime made precisely the same point, loudly and clearly. Armed white men are above the law, always, and Trump’s invitation to push ever further—made explicitly to the Proud Boys this autumn and again in his speech Wednesday—was always intended to signal that laws are not meant for white nationalists. At some point perhaps we will learn why it was a source close to the White House that reported the protesters planned to spend Wednesday night in the Capitol. But that will be a reckoning for another day.
It is perhaps understandable that before Charlottesville actually happened, there was no plan, no coordination, no recognition of the danger Trump was inciting. But for there to have been no plan, no coordination, no recognition of the danger Trump was inciting on the day Congress met in D.C. to certify the election is incomprehensible. Not one thing that happened in D.C. couldn’t have been foreseen, and forestalled.
Charlottesville didn’t presage this failure. It caused it. And the purpose of Wednesday’s march was not to take over government, not really. The purpose was to make precisely the point Nazis made three years ago in Virginia: that for white extremists, the streets belong to them, the Capitol belongs to them, and Nancy Pelosi’s office belongs to them, too. That they retain power even when they lose the majority. The fact that they were met by stunned Capitol Police who had no idea how to stop them was very precisely their point. And just as most of the organizers and participants in Charlottesville’s Nazi march swanned off with impunity and some fun selfies in 2017, so too the D.C. insurrectionists have no reason to fear that they will pay for their actions today. They were met with the very opposite of force. The police appear to have opened the gates for them. Why wouldn’t they believe the Capitol was theirs for the taking? It was. The gates are eternally open for an angry white man.
I won’t bore you with the request to imagine what would have transpired today if a mob of Black men shattered doors to enter the House (conspiracy and treason charges, for starters). No, I believe you are capable of imagining that scene for yourself. I will just note again that accountability matters, that if there are no mass arrests, no trials, and no life-altering consequences for Wednesday’s events, the next time will be worse. And while it seems law enforcement is incapable even of imagining that which has already happened, and how it might happen again, the rest of us are here sitting horrified, imagining not simply what has been allowed to happen but also what will happen the next time, and the one that follows that.
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